RARING TO GO Referee Damien McGrath from Inver is hoping to be back in action later this year.
IT may not always be the easiest job in the world, but referees like Damien MacGraith are just as eager as players and spectators to see soccer return.
As the best-known referee in the county, MacGraith has also become an established figure in both the Mayo Football League and the League of Ireland. He has also officiated at European level, including being an assistant referee at the 2012 European Championships.
The postponement of all sporting activity means MacGraith hasn’t blown his whistle since March 10 when Galway United defeated Athlone Town in the EA Sports Cup.
And although his trade is regarded as thankless at best and dangerous at worst, MacGraith says he has gotten great enjoyment out of it over the years.
“People view referees as being the enemy and that they’re dry and don’t have the craic,” he told The Mayo News. “But we do have really good times when we meet up. We’d chat about football and everything else going on in the world, but we do enjoy life as well as the next person.
“Obviously if you’re reffing on a Sunday morning at half 10 or 11am, being out in the pub [the night before] isn’t something you’d do very often. So the social life is definitely affected.
“We can’t meet fellow referees and colleagues at the minute, but during the season we absolutely do.”
A secondary school teacher by day, the Inver native is still in touch with the game in his role as an FAI Referee Instructor.
“I send the local referees questions on the laws of the game every ten days. So they’d just look them up and talk about them and discuss them. If there were any issues we’d have a chat.”
MacGraith has also kept up with the fitness regime referees at his level are required to follow. Even during lockdown, officials have to stay sharp for when action returns later this year.
He explains: “The FAI fitness coach sends us out a programme every week. We have three online strength and conditioning classes on a Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday for 45 minutes.
“Then you do your cardio, intervals, long runs as often as you can during the week. At present, I try to get out every evening just to keep ticking over. It’s much easier to maintain fitness than to try and regain it.
“You’re as well to do something to keep yourself on the ball so that if you were to come back in six weeks time you’d be ready to go.”
With the eyes of the world fixed on the recently-resumed German Bundesliga, soccer folk are acutely aware that the game won’t be back to normal at grassroots level for quite some time. Officials have received a detailed document from the FAI explaining the new protocols they will be expected to follow.
“We’ve to travel to matches on our own in individual cars,” he explains. “Dressing room capacity will be reduced, contact with team officials and players will be at a minimum or nil depending on the guidelines.
“The usual regulations in terms of hand hygiene and no shaking hands will apply.
“Locally, if there are three officials appointed to a Super League match, it’s likely that they will arrive on their own in their kit, referee the match, return to their cars and leave so there will be no use of facilities, which I suppose is going back to an old era but that’s the way it has to be.”
A dreaded second wave of Covid-19 later this year could threaten to derail whatever sporting activity does resume. MacGraith says that guidelines relating to hygiene and social distancing must be followed if games are to return at local level, and everyone is to stay safe.
“You’re on a field of play with 22 other players, two assistants and a fourth official. You’ve a multitude of substitutions on the touchline. You’re at close proximity to a big number of people. You’re still at the same level of risk as anyone else on the field.
“I know there’s not supposed to be any physical contact but you’re still within two metres of players at various stages. There’s no 100 percent risk-free area when people return. If we continue to do all the right things we lessen that risk.”